The flag which is commonly known today as the ‘Northern Ireland flag’ or the ‘Ulster flag’ first appeared in 1953. There were two important events that summer, the coronation in London on 2 June and a visit to Northern Ireland by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the start of July. Those two events provided the impetus for the adoption of the flag.
During the coronation celebrations in England, Scottish and Welsh people had their own national flags which they could use along with the Union flag but Ulster people in England had no distinctive flag. This gave rise to demands for an Ulster flag. The Northern Whig (23 May 1953) carried a report from its London correspondent entitled ‘Ulster should have an official flag’.
The demand for a flag was increased locally during the preparations for the royal visit. At various times between 1921 and 1953 there had been calls for the creation of an official Northern Ireland flag but this time the demand was stronger. In response to this the Northern Ireland government issued a statement in which it recognised ‘the desire of a number of people to fly a flag distinctive of Northern Ireland’ and declared that it had ‘no objection to the flying of the government banner’.
A banner is a rectangular flag bearing a coat of arms and the Northern Ireland government banner was a flag bearing the arms of the Northern Ireland government. It is this flag which we know as the Ulster flag. The original government statement described the flag as ‘a white flag, carrying the Cross of St George (in red) and in the centre of the Cross a white six-pointed star carrying the Red hand of Ulster, the Star being surmounted by the Imperial Crown.’
The Ulster flag was first flown at Stormont on 2 July, during the royal visit, and it was first flown in London on 5 November, when it was unfurled at the Northern Ireland government’s office in Lower Regent Street.
In a letter to the Belfast NewsLetter (10 July 1953) Mr A Robinson of the Ministry of Home Affairs said, ‘The public of Northern Ireland have always had and still have the same right as other citizens of the Commonwealth to fly the Union flag but if they wish to display a flag distinctive of the Province they are authorised to fly the Government banner which in this sense is the official Northern Ireland flag.’
The position was restated by Mr W B Topping, Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, in 1959. He said that in 1924 the government of Northern Ireland was granted arms by royal warrant and it had the right to display these arms on a banner or flag, and to say to what use this banner may be put. It was this banner, he said, which was generally known as the flag of Northern Ireland and the government had authorised its use by any citizen on any festive occasion. The use of the banner in this way was, therefore, fully justified by heraldic law and usage, and it came into being after consultation with Sir Gerald Wollaston, then Norroy and Ulster King of Arms.